I remember when our children were younger, and we went on our summer holidays by car, that the car windscreen would be splattered with the remains of dead insects. This summer my wife and I drove to Cornwall and back for our holidays almost without a single insect hitting our windscreen. Where have all of the insects gone? It would appear that we, the human species, have wiped them out as a consequence of the way we exploit the planet for our own comfort and convenience. Insecticides and monocultures aided by genetically-modified crops make a direct contribution but our consumption of fossil fuels and intensive production of everything from beef [see ‘A startling result‘ on May 18th, 2016] to plastics is changing the environment [see ‘Productive cheating?‘ on November 27th, 2013]. The biologist, Edward O. Wilson observed that ‘If all humankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed 10,000 years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.’ It looks like we are on the cusp of that collapse.
Cristiana Pașca Palmer, the executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity has highlighted the impact of our actions as a species on the other species with which we share this planet. We are making the planet uninhabitable for an increasing number of species to the extent that the rate of extinct is perhaps the fastest ever seen and we might be the first species to catalogue its own demise. Our politicians have demonstrated their inability to act together over climate change even when it leads to national disasters in many countries; so, it seems unlikely that they will agree on significant actions to arrest the loss of bio-diversity. We need to act as individuals, in whatever way we can, to reduce our ecological footprints – that impact that we have on the environment [see ‘New Year Resolution‘ on December 31st, 2014] . As the Roman poet Horace wrote: ‘You are also affected when your neighbour’s house is on fire’; so, we should not think that none of this affect us.
I have had intermittent interactions with motorsport during my engineering career, principally with Formula 1, Formula SAE and Formula Student teams. The design, construction and competition involved in Formula Student generates tremendous enthusiasm amongst a section of the student community and enormously increases their employability. As a Department Chair at Michigan State University, I was a proud and enthusiastic sponsor of the MSU Formula SAE team. However, I find it increasingly difficult to support an activity that is associated with profligate expenditure of energy and resources – this is not the impression of engineering that should be portrayed to our current and future students. Engineering is about so much more than making a vehicle go around a track as fast as possible. See my posts on ‘Re-engineering Engineering‘ on August 30th, 2017, ‘Engineering is all about ingenuity‘ on September 14th, 2016 or ‘Life takes engineering‘ on April 22nd, 2015.
There are many other challenges that could taken up by student teams, in competition if that encourages participation, which would benefit human-kind and the planet. A current hot topic in the UK media is the pollution of oceans by waste plastic [see for example BBC report]; so, engineering undergraduates could be challenged to design, construct and operate an autonomous marine vehicle that collects and processes plastic waste. It could be powered from the embedded energy in the waste plastic collected in the ocean. It would need to navigate to avoid collisions with other vessels, coastal features and wildlife, and to locate and identify the waste. These represent technological changes in chemical, control, electronic, materials and mechanical engineering – and probably some other fields as well. I have shared this concept with colleagues in Liverpool and there is some enthusiasm for it; maybe some competition from other universities is all that’s needed to get Formula Ocean started. The machine with the largest positive net impact on the environment wins!